On Monday this week (23 July), Philippine President President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo proclaimed a prosperous vision for the country in her seventh annual State of the Nation Address (SONA) to the Congress while pointedly warning she would brook no-nonsense in her nation-building campaign.
Declaring that “a President is always as strong as she wants to be”, Arroyo went on to paint a somewhat optimistic view that under her economic policies laid out for the remainder of her term till 2010, the Philippines would in two decades “achieve the hallmarks of a modern society where institutions are strong”, poverty dramatically eradicated and “the marginalized [on its way] to a robust middle-class”. She justified her achievements in the fastest economic growth in 17 years, reaching 6.9% in the first quarter of 2007, the stock market at its highest peak in history and that the peso is at a seven-year high against the US dollar. Arroyo also boasted of the six million jobs created within the last six years and that her infrastructure projects like roads and airports in the provinces would significantly aid Philippines’ transformation into a First World nation. As for anti-corruption efforts, Arroyo declared, “We have provided unprecedented billions for anti-graft efforts. Thus, the Ombudsman’s conviction rate hit 77 percent this year from six percent in 2002.”
Besides the economy, Arroyo stressed the importance of national security and exhorted Congress to pass laws that would “reserve the harshest penalties for the rogue elements in the uniformed services” who carry out extra-judicial abuses. She also declared that she would do her best to secure peace and reconciliation in the conflict-ravaged Mindanao.
However, not many are applauding Arroyo. First, the media reported that stock market immediately closed lower after her uninspiring speech. Second, the opposition gave a new name for her: SONA –“Same Old Nonsense Ad nauseam”, calling it “lies and promises”. Even support from the Roman Catholic Church is waning. Archbishop Oscar Cruz criticized, “When someone is much discredited and thus deeply distrusted, his or her words are simply discarded and ridiculed as well. Words are only good as long as the one saying them is not only trustworthy and credible, but also capable of making them realities.”
Just after Arroyo paraded her triumphs on Monday, the Philippine Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the government to “respond to the petitions questioning the constitutionality of Republic Act 9372 or the Human Security Act (HSA) of 2007” more commonly called the anti-terror law, which came into effect on 15 July. The petitioners including lawyers, peace and militant groups from civil society claimed the HSA contravenes the constitutional protections of “the right to due process, the presumption of innocence, the right to privacy, freedom of expression, speech and assembly, freedom of association, right to bail and right to travel”. They are afraid the HSA may be used as a “weapon for political harassment and persecution”.
Nonetheless, the government has reported that security forces who abuse their powers will be penalized and this has already made the police very careful in using the HSA. Police Regional Office (PRO-7) Deputy Director for Administration C/Supt Ronald Roderos cited “the P500T fine daily that would be imposed on the police that have erroneously jailed an innocent person suspected of being a terrorist [makes] it doubly hard for them to just implement the Anti-Terror Law”. Law enforcers are being educated about the law so as to implement it correctly. Meanwhile, the Philippine government is considering the use of nine “existing courts to deal with acts of terrorism and related offenses”.
To round up an intensive week of politics and security, this week will also see Mindanao experiencing one of Arroyo’s most touted security crackdowns. Already about 5,000 people have fled “Basilan where government troops are expected to mount an assault against Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces” which killed 14 marines. Social Welfare Officer Hdj. Bai Racma Ambolodto-Imam from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao said, “They moved on their own because they fear for their lives, that they might get caught in the crossfire.”
Meanwhile, as thousands of troops converge upon the area, the government has extended the ultimatum to the MILF and demanded it show sincerity by surrendering the culprits who carried out the killings. A besieged MILF has already appealed for external help. MILF chief negotiator Muhaquer Iqbal is alleged to have “written offices in Metro Manila of foreign donors involved in various projects in the South, insinuating that any outbreak of hostilities in Basilan will surely affect their costly projects in Mindanao”. Another rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has maintained that it will honour its peace truce with the government and its forces will not intervene if fight breaks out between the military and the MILF in Basilan.
The tension in the South is palpable as the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police are on high alert for possible bombings and similar attacks in key points in Mindanao, as well as spillover effects from the potential offensive. (26 July 2007)
Military stands down; delays Basilan push (Manila Times, 26 July 2007)
Palace to MILF: Show sincerity (AFP/ Philippine Star, 26 July 2007)
SC gives Arroyo govt. 10 days to defend anti-terrorism law (GMANews.TV, 26 July 2007)
Region 7 police a bit cautious in implementing the Anti-Terror Law (Philippine Information Agency, 25 July 2007)
Philippines sets up anti-terror courts (UPI, 25 July 2007)
5,000 flee Basilan town as military-MILF battle looms (GMA News.TV, 25 July 2007)
Arroyo cites 30% share for Mindanao (Sun.Star, 25 July 2007)
Philippine shares close easier after Arroyo speech fails to inspire (Forbes, 24 July 2007)
Philippines says planned offensive against Muslim rebels won't threaten ASEAN security (AP, 24 July 2007)
Arroyo lays out 3-year economic road map (Sun.Star, 23 July 2007)
Arroyo touts her economic achievements (IHT, 23 July 2007)